Posted by: B Gourley | May 23, 2012

The Rage Monster is not Your Friend: Emotion and the Martial Arts

Miyamoto Musashi famously showed up tardy to matches so that he could exploit his enemy’s anger about being disrespected. This gambit was used on more than one occasion, most notably against Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island. Musashi unbalanced his opponents, as surely as does the opening movement of a throw in which the opponent’s center of gravity is pulled or pushed ahead or behind their body.  Of course, it’s impossible to isolate the effect of anger in Musashi’s victories. He did, after all, have other advantages including range and athleticism. But, clearly, he thought these were beneficial gambit.

Humans are defined by our emotional lives. We are the only species that can achieve the same physiological state from thinking about an emotional event as from directly experiencing it. Emotions are both necessary and, potentially, deleterious. Here are a couple approaches to emotion that one shouldn’t take:

1.) The Mr. Spock: This is the Vulcan approach of purging all emotion. It turns out that emotions are essential for human decision-making. Individuals who, due to damage to a portion of their pre-frontal lobes, are emotionless usually can’t function in society. Such individuals are known to be paralyzed by indecision because emotion is what tips the scales for us when he have to decide. Furthermore, they may fail to comply with social mores such as the need to wear pants because… well, why the hell not?

2.) The Ned Flanders: Named for the quirky hyper-nice character in The Simpsons, this involves suppression of negative emotion and expression of joy. I was recently reading about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and was surprised to see mention of the damaging health effects of “excessive joy” described just as were those for depression and excessive anger. However, lack of balance is lack of balance.

If those are the approaches one shouldn’t take, what approach should one take?

First, one should recognize that the danger lies at the extremes of emotion. Therefore, one should train oneself to check emotional extremes in one’s daily life. This requires self-awareness to catch the outburst (or otherwise) sooner. The key lies in injecting perspective into the heart of the matter. Ultimately, there’s no reason to get too distraught about anything because in the scheme of life and death, it doesn’t matter.

Second, one should strive to cultivate mu, or nothingness, which is not about suppressing mental states as about letting them evaporate. “Suppressing” is an action, and, as such, is inherently at odds with mu, and can no more work than thinking about not thinking.

Third, one must recognize that perfecting emotional experience is a lifelong challenge, and cannot be achieved rapidly or without a certain degree of agony along the way.

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